A very fine line separates historical narrative from biographical nonfiction. In the latter, the subject is of prime importance and exploration of the way that the subject feels about historical events is the primary reason for such a text. As to the former, the subject is often a vehicle to exploring the larger conditions surrounding her. Deciphering which tactic is in play in any given text may be a difficult endeavor, only further complicated when the protagonist of an historical narrative is female. In this case, one may be given the impression that the uniqueness, individuality and mere availability of her story may be enough to suggest that the history within is driven by her actions. However, as we consider texts focusing on the lives of Elizabeth Marsh, Madame Caillaux and Eugenia Ginzberg, it becomes clear that their respective biographers were in fact more devoted to delineating history than telling individual life stories. Through the lens of the primary female character in each of these texts, the reader comes to understand more about the moment in history than about the woman beholding it.
As to the question of whether these women are the primary subject of their respective titles, as opposed to central characters in historical narratives, the Colley (2007) text is particularly revealing. This is because Colley makes no attempt to manufacture a narrative elevating the title character. In Elizabeth Marsh, we are not necessarily presented with an 18th century woman whose life helped to propel history forward. In fact, Colley concedes at multiple points throughout her text that the Marsh narrative is often pieced together, that some deductions have been made using genealogy and that not all reported information is confirmed as fully accurate.
None of this damages the value of the text however, because as its prime cause for existence, the text pursues something closer to an historical sketch of a time and place. That the story of Marsh is instructive in helping us to understand this time and place on a more human level is critical to the value of the text. Still, it is difficult to deny that Marsh is essentially a vehicle for exploring this period of history and, furthermore, that the choice of Marsh as a human subject helps to unpack some of our perceptions regarding the life of a woman in the 18th century.
In particular, that Marsh chose to travel and log her experiences immediately contrasts our impression of the quintessential woman of her time. Rather than present us with a female constrained by her moment in history, Colley offers a world history channeled through the subject's experiences. As Marsh travels, the text gives us glimpses of the political, economic and cultural conditions that very much defined the era. This would include the intersection between the subject's life and such catalyzing events as the start of the American revolution. Indeed, the period of British imperialism comes to play a substantial part in Marsh's experiences as she works her way through contexts such as India and Morocco, the latter of which held her captive for a period of three months.
Her capture, in fact, serves as an important segment of the book because it does demonstrate the distinction in her experiences as a woman while simultaneously making the reader aware of the larger forces at play in the world constructed by the author. Namely, we find Marsh under pressure by a young sultan to join his harem of sex subjects. Concurrent to this personal struggle, the Moroccans insist on holding Marsh hostage, demanding that her native Britain agree to establish a proper consul in Marrakesh. Perhaps as much as any other section of the Colley text, this ordeal demonstrates that Marsh is at the mercy of forces far greater than her own volition.
Simultaneously, it identifies some of the qualities that set Marsh apart from her female contemporaries, making her life perfectly remarkable as a vehicle for an historical narrative. According to the Colley text, "at the time of her Moroccan ordeal -- for all her recent gloss of ladylike accomplishments -- she was still firmly artisan in background, and used to the compromises of shipboard life. She may thus not fully have appreciated that her conduct had gone well beyond what conventional middle-class males…would have seen as acceptable in a young unmarried woman." (Colley, p. 72)
To this point, the fact that Marsh is a character in history rather than a shaper of history should not be seen to discredit the individuality or importance of her story. Nor does it blunt the remarkable accomplishments that distinguished her in her time and place among others of her gender. However, it does help us to identify the primary purpose of the text, which is to provide a window into a moment in history. That Marsh's life was remarkable and varied enough to allow such a window is her distinguishing feature in history. This is less a story about an individual woman as it is a story about a point in history in which an individual woman did remarkable things. These remarkable things are cast against the backdrop of a changing world.
The matter of Henriette Caillaux is somewhat more complex than that of Elizabeth Marsh. This is demonstrated well in the text by Berenson (1993), which recalls a rather memorable chapter in French history. Indeed, the Caillaux story is a remarkable passage of political intrigue and drama which unfolding in front of the French public in the early 20th century. Recounting the events leading to Caillaux's premeditated murder of a journalist responsible for publicly discrediting her husband and France's Prime Minister. Rather than see her husband's life or reputation lost in a duel with the journalist, Caillaux chose to sacrifice herself by ambushing the journalist in his office with a pistol.
The murder became a highly celebrated case and, because the actions around which the Berenson text revolve seem to have been initiated by the female protagonist, it is tempting to think of this as a book about a woman in history. But a closer consideration instead reveals that even in light of her dramatic actions, Caillaux is a character who is largely moved by history rather than vice versa. In fact, what is so distinct about this chapter in history is that even in her most dramatic and defining behavior, Caillaux presents herself as having largely been out of her right mind. In other words, even in the act of murder, the character feels that she is not fully in control of her actions. She finds herself being moved by events, external forces and her own emotions.
According to the Berenson account of her trial, "despite all her efforts, she lost control. Unconsciousness triumphed over consciousness, impulse over will. 'The idea of premeditation is absurd,' declared Les Hommes du jour. 'Psychologically, what we have is a poor insane person incapable of controlling herself.'" (Berenson, p. 42) This portrayal would be reinforced by Caillaux's own recollection of events. Here, she presents herself as having been moved by an uncontrollable force, even to the extent that the victim's physical response helped contribute to his death as much as any other force. According to the account, "even with her pistol pointed at Calmette, Henriete Caillaux claimed to have made one final effort to prevent herself from actually harming him, a last desparate attempt to deflect her unconscious impulses from their most potentially grieveous result. 'At the moment when I fired the first shot I experiences an almost imperceptible flash of consciousness and that was to shoot down toward the ground.'" (Berenson, p. 42)
However, when Calmette instinctually dives to the ground, he places himself directly in the path of her bullet. This is a telling passage in the text because it comports with the idea that Caillaux is moved by history rather than functioning to move it herself. In fact, it is her gender that allows this impression to carry forward to its utmost. As a woman, Caillaux is actually acquitted of her crimes based on the logic that the female gender cannot be expected to control its emotions and passions with the same fortitude as can men. Whether this was accurate or not, the legal defense was successful and would ultimately come to define the Berenson text. This shows Caillaux to be the lead character is a story that provides a snapshot at a heady moment in French political history as well as some insight into the way that women were perceived in this time and place.
By sharp contrast to the Caillaux story, which finds a wealthy woman evading justice because of her gender, the story of and by Eugenia Ginzburg is far more inspirational. Hers is the narrative of a woman imprisoned in a Soviet gulag under the dictatorial rule of Joseph Stalin. Right from the outset, this text is easy to distinguish as a chapter of human history in which a woman…